The Internal Revenue Service, already probably the most-feared and reviled federal agency in America’s history, is trying to live down its earned reputation for attacking conservative and church groups.
There still are multiple investigations ongoing as well as a multitude of lawsuits over the agency’s actions against those groups over the last five or six years. The IRS actions also are the focus of outrage in Congress where members are considering an arrest of former IRS official Lois Lerner for her actions to allegedly conceal information about the agency’s discriminatory practices.
Now it’s being revealed that the IRS could be launching another clandestine campaign against Christian churches, with targeted investigations and more.
“There’s some funny business (and not the ‘haha’ kind) going on between the IRS and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an organization of ‘freethinkers (atheists, agnostics)’ who are ‘committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church,’” commented the Independent Journal Review online.
The event that has prompted the concern is a lawsuit the FFRF brought against the IRS to try to force it to prosecute churches for their statements on issues like abortion, same-sex “marriage” and the like, about which many religious texts, including the Bible, often are explicit.
The organization brought the lawsuit over what it called “illegal campaign intervention by churches” and it said it wanted “enforcement of restrictions applicable to churches that prevent nonprofits from supporting or opposing political candidates.”
Rev. Billy Graham’s evangelical organization was one of the groups drawing complaints from the FFRF.
Then the FFRF agreed to the case being dismissed because “It is satisfied that the IRS does not have a policy at this time of non-enforcement specific to churches and religious institutions.”
The move came after IRS official Mary Epps told the tax division of the Department of Justice in a letter that as of June 23, 2014, the agency’s Political Action Referrals Committee had determined that 99 churches across the nation “merit a high priority examination.”
“Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb.
“We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day.”
Because of the filing by the FFRF, then the dismissal of the action under procedures that allow it to be filed again, the ADF is asking the IRS to release “all documents related to its recent decision to settle a lawsuit with an atheist group.”
The FFRF, in a court filing, explained it brought the action because it was claiming the IRS “was evidently not enforcing the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.”
The dismissal was all right, the organization said, because the IRS said “procedures are now in place for enforcement of the electioneering restrictions … including a procedure to initiate investigations/examinations of churches for possible violations.”
However, that move smacks of politics itself, according to former Department of Justice Attorney J. Christian Adams.
“The left always goes after religion,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “They don’t like religion. It’s why the FFRF is trying to convert theology into politics.”
He said the anti-religion groups “want to use the IRS as a weapon against Christianity, against faith.”
They “hate what the conservative wing stands for,” he said. “What they want to do is use the power of government, just like they did against the tea party. It’s the same thing. They want to turn belief in God into a political thing.
“They want to use the IRS to go after people who express faith from the pulpit.”
Asked the IR Review, "Does the FFRF have a point – are churches too involved in politics? Or is the IRS simply looking for another way to target organizations it doesn't agree with?"
The secrecy is a concern to the ADF, which is asking for "all documents related to any existing, proposed, new, or adopted procedures for church tax inquiries or examinations from January 2009 to the present" and well as documents relating to "regulation 301.7611-1" and those documents "referenced in FFRF's …press release."
The request explains that FFRF "announced that the IRS had put in place 'protocols to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions' and had 'adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.'"
"The IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its recent scandals, but no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops," ADF explained.
The anti-religion foundation mentioned ADF's annual "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," an event to protest the Johnson Amendment, which "authorizes the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status."
"The IRS cannot force churches to give up their precious constitutionally protected freedoms to receive a tax exemption," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, who heads Pulpit Freedom Sunday. "No one would suggest a pastor give up his church's tax-exempt status if he wants to keep his constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure or cruel and unusual punishment. Likewise, no one should be asking him to do the same to be able to keep his constitutionally protected freedom of speech."
Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be held Oct. 5 this year.
The documents request includes "correspondence, memoranda, statements, emails, text messages, letters, calendar or diary logs, facsimile logs, telephone records, call sheets, tape recordings, notes, and other documents and things that refer or relate to the foregoing matter in any way."
FFRF had claimed victory when the IRS decided to "prove to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions."
"Of course, we have the complications of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigation of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS," said FFRF spokeswoman Annie Gaylor. "FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches."
WND has reported the challenge to the IRS, which actually developed years before the latest IRS scandals.
Stanley previously noted that preaching about scriptural principles and applying them to the positions of candidates for public office is not "political" speech, it's "core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants."
During the annual event, pastors deliberately apply biblical perspectives to the positions of candidates for public office in defiance of the 1954 Johnson Amendment.
ADF's aim is to provoke a legal challenge from the IRS that would enable it to file a lawsuit and defeat the regulation in court on constitutional grounds.
The Johnson Amendment bans churches and ministers from participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.
Supporters of the event, which began in 2008 with just 35 pastors, contend the government cannot dictate to churches and ministers their sermon topics. In recent years, thousands of pastors have participated.
Stanley said pastors "are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office. Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries."
Stanley said the issue is simple: Government cannot be allowed to condition a status, such as being tax-exempt, on the "surrender of a constitutionally protected freedom."
He explained that Democratic Sen. Lyndon Johnson got the amendment adopted in 1954 "with little notice as a means to silence non-profit groups that opposed his bid for re-election."
"The government has no automatic right to the church's money just because its pastor won't give up his constitutionally protected right to free speech," he said.
A short video about Pulpit Freedom Sunday:
ADF points out that before 1954, "there were no restrictions on what churches could or couldn't do with regard to speech about government and voting, excepting only a 1934 law preventing nonprofits from using a substantial part of their resources to lobby for legislation."